WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. — He slowed the car to a stop and pulled into the parking lot. Shutting the engine down, he looked around the vehicle.
Everything he owned was crammed into the small space that had become his home for the past few months. He glanced at the brick building: Air Force Recruiting displayed proudly on the sign above the door.
With no family to see him off, no friends to leave behind, Colton Elliott closed the door to his past and opened one to his future.
Elliott’s childhood had been difficult as far back as he could remember, he said. Growing up in Salt Lake City with parents who struggled with drug addiction, his home life was never stable; he had been back and forth from his home to foster care more times than he could count. Finally, when a school counselor noticed bruises on the little boy, family services removed him from his mother’s care permanently. He was 8 years old.
‘I never felt at home’
“I was shuffled around the foster care system for a few years after that,” Elliott said. “I never got too comfortable in any one place. I never felt at home.”
He was still being shuffled around from one foster family to another when his real father came back into the picture. Finally clean after years of drug use, he was granted custody of the 10-year-old Elliott. The two of them moved into an apartment, and from there life got a little more predictable.
“It was the most stable years I had growing up,” Elliott said. “Those years felt relatively normal.”
Elliott had lived with his father for almost five years when life began to unravel again. His dad often left the 15-year-old home alone to care for himself for days on end. The days turned to weeks and eventually the weeks turned to months.
“He didn’t say a word to me,” Elliott said. “The time away got longer and longer until he never came back. I haven’t spoken to him since.”
Without any family to turn to, the high school sophomore began living life on his own, picking up a job at a local restaurant where he washed dishes in order to pay the rent for the apartment he had once shared with his father.
“I got a free meal for working my shift, and at the end of the night they would let me take home leftovers,” Elliott said.
He often skipped classes to pick up shifts at the restaurant to make ends meet. Despite only attending class half the time, he was still able to make passing grades. The school left messages about his absences on the answering machine at his apartment, but never investigated his situation. Elliott, determined to take care of himself, did not reach out for help.
“I’m stubborn, and I thought I could do it on my own,” he said. “There were a lot of times I was definitely upset about it, but I decided it was out of my control, and I couldn’t let it get to me.”
During his senior year of high school, he finally opened up to one of his teachers about his situation. By that time, he had almost finished high school. Though his teacher couldn’t change what Elliott had been through, she found a way to offer him a scholarship to college. Elliott said he declined the scholarship because he could not imagine himself ever getting a college degree.
When graduation day finally came, Elliott attended, but said it wasn’t much of a celebration.
“I had no plans at all,” Elliott said. “I was pretty much lost at that time.”
Without a plan or dreams of college, Elliott got a job in a factory, working 40 to 50 hours a week. The job was strenuous, but it paid the bills and offered him more financial stability than he had known before.
“I was making $10 an hour and doing well for myself,” he said. “I thought I could do it for the rest of my life, and I would be okay. But after a year straight of that, I realized the work was killing my body, my mind, everything.”
Before he had the chance to look for another job, Elliott was laid off from the factory. He found a position working in hospitality at a ski resort, but the work was seasonal; when winter came and went, so did his income. That’s when he found himself sleeping in his car.
“At the time I didn’t have anyone else to turn to or anywhere to go,” he said. “I thought it would just be for a few nights.”
Joining the Air National Guard
Knowing he couldn’t go on living in his car, Elliott decided his best option was to enlist in the military. When the active-duty Air Force recruiter told him it would be at least a year before he could go to basic training, he researched other options. That’s when he found the Air National Guard. He knew it was an opportunity for a better life and a chance to serve.
“I didn’t have that much time,” Elliott said. “I contacted the Guard recruiter. He said I could enlist the following week. I hadn’t even known the Guard existed.”
The new airman thrived in the military environment, earning the distinguished graduate award from his technical training school program. But reality set in for him during the last week of training. Up until that point he had been busy and had not thought about what it would mean when he completed his orders. He was unsure of the life he was going back to when his training was finished.
Elliott returned to Utah’s 151st Air Refueling Wing, at Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base, and began his job as a services technician. He said he immediately felt welcomed into the military family.
Once he had spent some time on orders learning his new specialty, he was given the opportunity to work at the Airman and Family Readiness Center, assisting the program manager, Jill Lukes. During the time he worked for Lukes, Elliott opened up to her about his background and the hardships he faced growing up. The two built a friendship and she introduced Elliott to her family.
“It took a while for us to build trust with him,” Lukes said. “I think he needed to know that we weren’t going to leave him.”
Lukes, shares eight children with her husband Douglas, a retired chief master sergeant from the 151st Civil Engineer Squadron. She said her entire family embraced Elliott with open arms. She now considers herself a mother to nine children.
“He really became part of our family,” she said. “We joke that we are his Guard-parents.”
“I’ve seen his attitude and how he overcame so much as a young man,” Lukes said. “From where he’s come and where he’s been, you can’t help but love him. He has a heart of gold.”
Feeling more settled than ever in the Air National Guard, Elliott joined the base Honor Guard and participated in nearly 70 ceremonies and funerals in just a few years. He also volunteered for two six-month deployments. When he returned from overseas, he attended Airman Leadership School and took home the John L. Levitow Award for the most outstanding leadership and scholastic achievement among his classmates. In 2012, he was named 151st ARW Airman of the Year.
In 2015, Elliott retrained into public affairs, after staff saw his personal photography portfolio and recruited him. His supervisor at the time, Air Force Master Sgt. Kelly Collett, said he was humbled and impressed by Elliott as he got to know him on the job.
“I would have never imagined that the young, talented, kind and well-mannered young Airman I had been working with would have ever come from such a trying and difficult life,” Collett said. “I could not believe that such a young man would have the strength and will to push himself to be successful in life after all that he had endured as a young man.”
Elliott said he attributes his success to his determination to take advantage of every single opportunity presented to him — a mantra he still practices today. He also takes advantage of opportunities to volunteer as often as he can.
“I felt like being in uniform gave me a new purpose,” Elliott said of his service in the ANG. “When I put it on, I was somebody, and I’ve felt compelled to give back.”
Collett said when Elliott deployed, he had American flags flown over different bases and in different aircraft, then donated them to children with terminal illnesses. The gesture helped to brighten the days of some very sick children and their families.
“He wasn’t looking for attention or gratitude, but to make someone else’s day a bit brighter,” Collett said. “He gives freely because he knows what it was like to have nothing, and I believe that he doesn’t want anyone to suffer the same fate.”
Elliott is now a photojournalist at the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Bomb Wing. He attends school full time studying mass communications, and is more than halfway through his degree program. He said he sometimes finds it hard to believe the things that he has achieved.
“I honestly would have laughed at you if you told me I would be in college,” he said. “My life has completely turned around, and is attributed to the Guard and to all the people that have helped me.”
Elliott has served in the ANG for almost seven years and said he definitely plans to stay in for a full career. The Guard has given him opportunities that have taken him around the world — far from the car he was living in when he started his journey.
“Once I joined the Guard, I finally felt like I had family,” he said. “I went from having no one to having people all over who are there for me.”
Elliott added, “That’s why I stay. One day, I hope to be there for someone the same way that people have been there for me.”